Critic's Choice - 2013 Finale

Senior film critic Kurt Brokaw picks three films as end of the year, winter favorites.


The Music Lesson. Johannes Vermeer, 1662. Oil on canvas.
The Music Lesson. Johannes Vermeer, 1662. Oil on canvas.

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Tim’s Vermeer
(Teller. 2013. USA. 80 min.)

As a premier magic act, Penn and Teller stand among the most accomplished performing illusionists. To be sure, their jazzy show-and-tell routines in which they perform jaw-dropping mysteries and then demonstrate step-by-step how they did it, have earned them the undying enmity of many working magicians. Penn Gillette and Teller’s most surprising success may be in having reversed a long accepted magic principle that knowing how a trick is pulled off will forever spoil the illusion; they’ve demonstrated for over 40 years that contemporary audiences not only love being fooled, but derive great pleasure from then seeing exactly how the deception was performed—often through some canny blend of art, technology, and misdirection. Defenders of this controversial practice point out that Penn and Teller mostly give away the secrets of their own inventions, and that their “deconstructions” are actually helping attract young new audiences to one of the oldest stage entertainments.

Thus you can see why, as students and practitioners of the arcane art of illusion, Penn and Teller would be drawn to two books that speculate on inventions possibly used in the creation of great historical paintings: David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters (Viking, 2001), and Philip Steadman’s Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces (Oxford University Press, 2001).

Hockney, the preeminent British artist, explores the ability of mirrors and lenses (including the primitive camera obscura light box) that might have aided artists going back to Leonardo da Vinci in achieving perspective and chiaroscuro. Steadman, a professor of urban studies at University College London, goes even further and theorizes that Johannes Vermeer, a 17th century Dutch painter of intimate family scenes, must have used some form of mechanical aid to give his paintings their highly precise photographic look. Both scholars are convinced that Vermeer couldn’t have “painted with light” so accurately using just his own eyes. Steadman admits many art historians worldwide were “deeply upset and anguished” by their investigations.

But Tim Jenison, a Texas-based inventor and pal of Penn and Teller, was fascinated. Jenison founded NewTek, a pioneer in desktop video, and created the Video Toaster and LightWave 3-D modeling and rendering software, winning an Emmy in 1993. Jenison quickly discovered that just by holding up a mirror set at a 45-degree angle next to a color photo, he could hand-copy the photo, not closely, but exactly—he observed that when the color is right, the edge of the mirror simply vanishes, just like magic.

Jenison wondered if he reconstructed a set of one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings, “The Music Lesson” (pictured here), down to the last precise details of furnishings, fabrics, and costumed models, whether he, a non-painter, could “paint a Vermeer.” Penn and Teller said whoa, let’s shoot this; Tim’s Vermeer is Jenison’s 80-minute journey, and it’s a thrilling beauty of a ride. More than that: it suddenly rockets the filmmakers (Teller directs, Penn narrates and sometimes is a helpful talking head) out of their customary Las Vegas showbiz environs and into the highest layers of the art world. It’s a big step up and they honor it. So does Jenison, an affable and tireless inventor who knows he can shatter a centuries-old wall between art and technology if he can paint a credible copy of “The Music Lesson.”

The journey is arduous. Jenison takes 1,800 days to fashion Vermeer’s original room from the 1660s, mix his own pigments, and patiently apply his concave lens apparatus to help create the canvas, which includes copying the tiniest details like rug weaves and scrollwork. One of his daughters, an art student, wearily poses day after day as the music pupil (just as one of Vermeer’s ten children may have posed for him). Jenison’s frustration and exhaustion are palpable, but, like Vermeer, he’s attempting “to create a world more perfect than the artist had witnessed.” We sense he’s onto something truly remarkable, and when he’s done and begins to weep, you may, too.

Jenison travels to Buckingham Palace in London, where Vermeer’s original hangs as part of the Royal Collection of Great Britain. He’s granted a 30-minute viewing (no crew or cameras) and tells us the actual painting is richly dense and enthralling beyond words. But we’re overjoyed to watch Hockney and Steadman affirm the extraordinary fidelity of Jenison’s own work. They say that he’s turned “an unfathomable genius into a fathomable genius.” The art and technology of a 17th century Golden Age have been fused for a pop culture audience in 2013.

Tim’s Vermeer, an Oscar-worthy doc that informs and delights, has a superbly suspenseful music score by Conrad Pope, though the sly wink over the closing credits that you’re likely to walk out humming is Bob Dylan growling his mystical 1971 ditty, “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”

August: Osage County
(John Wells. 2013. USA. 120 min.)

Theatergoers who discovered playwright Tracy Letts early in his
hoo-boy career have their favorite onstage moments engraved in their memories. It’s nigh impossible to forget Amanda Plummer, way back in 1998, playing a trailer tramp step-mom to a totally dysfunctional family, especially during her busy moments doing things to a greasy chicken leg from a bucket of KFC that gave a unique new twist to “finger-lickin’ good.” The play, Killer Joe, Letts' first off-Broadway venture, was so filled with carnage, blood, and viscera that viewers seated in the front rows during previews were given plastic sheets and advised to cover up during the finale.

Then along came Bug in 2004. Amanda Plummer was set to star in that, too, as a cocktail waitress in a seedy motel room in Oklahoma City. But she changed her mind the day before previews, perhaps deciding she wasn’t up for eight performances a week trying to help an addicted Gulf War soldier (Michael Shannon) who goes ballistic amid an infestation of insects. Shannon Cockran replaced Plummer and got to strip off her clothes in the final moments along with Shannon, who soaked their nude bodies with gasoline and set them both ablaze in a final embrace framed in a light show bright enough to illuminate half of Times Square.

Even Letts’ most rabid fans probably didn’t suspect August: Osage County which debuted on Broadway in 2007, would win the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama. The single set is a mammoth three-story country home outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma. This ferocious three hour and twenty minute family drama works its way toward a second act centerpiece scene in which three grown daughters, their husbands, and other relatives gather for a funeral dinner following the suicide of the patriarch (who was initially well played by the late Dennis Letts, the playwright’s dad). The confrontations grow in anger and blistering intensity, finally exploding into a knockdown, drag-out catfight between the mother and her oldest daughter. This is the scene you wait for in John Wells’ faithful widescreen filming, which Letts has adroitly condensed to two hours, and when the battle royale arrives, it’s a doozy:

The mother of the clan, Violet (Meryl Streep in yet another milestone performance) keeps straightening her wig and numbing her growing mouth cancer with valium, Vicodin, Darvon, Percoset, Xanax, Oxycontin and various other prescribed meds; she’s lost most of her hair and is also a steady drinker like her deceased husband (Sam Shepard, perfectly cast), whom she calls “a world class alcoholic for over 50 years.” Her oldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts, a brittle beauty who matches the sardonic savagery of her stage counterpart, Amy Morton) has arrived from Colorado with her university teacher husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor, stiffly coiled); they’ve separated after his affair with a student and are barely in control of their 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin), a pot-smoking vegetarian whose passion is watching a televised 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera.

Up from Florida is daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis, all grown up into a hard-as-nails real estate maven) with her fiancé, Steve (an oily Dermot Mulroney) a three-time married letch and pothead who’s already eying young Jean. Then there’s Violet’s shy local daughter, Ivy (the marvelous Julianne Nicholson), who has her own cancer issues and has fallen in love with her first cousin, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch, nicely playing a failed, fumbling shoe salesman); he’s (we think) the son of chatty, hefty Mattie Fey (Margo Martindale) and the relentlessly upbeat Charles (another fine turn by Chris Cooper) who stumbles through an endless grace before the family starts spilling dishes and bludgeoning each other. The final member of the household, Johnna, newly hired, is played by Misty Upham. She’s Violet’s competent and compassionate Native American caregiver and cook—the one normal soul in this wacky bunch (and when Steve eventually makes his move on the stoned teenager, she’ll take a shovel to him).

It’s 108 degrees in Osage County, and as the plot twists and turns through multiple family secrets—from the disposition of assets in a safe deposit box to a suicide note that may suggest why the father took his own life—the hothouse theatrics never sag. The entire ensemble stays tautly on point and keenly attuned to the fact that they’re performing a Pulitzer drama written by a fellow actor of the highest caliber; Letts won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Actor for his performance as George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

“Don’t go Carson McCullers on me,” Barbara warns Ivy, but McCullers hardly seems the author who’s inspired Letts into viewing humanity in such raw, unsparing terms. It doesn’t seem to be Edward Albee or Tennessee Williams either, as some critics have suggested. The writer who did the heavy lifting that set the stage for Letts’ singular voice is the late Horton Foote—not in his gentle family plays of small-town rural life (or his delicate screenplays like To Kill A Mockingbird and Tender Mercies), but in his more forceful and aggravated later plays like Dividing the Estate and The Old Friends.

Indeed, the closest spiritual kin to August: Osage County is Foote’s 1956 novel, The Chase, a bitter, bloody, all-stops-out pulp fiction of an escaped convict brought to the screen in 1966 by Arthur Penn; it’s set in a Texas town oozing with corruption and adultery, and its torched-junkyard ending (a precursor to Letts’ Bug) sported a marquee-busting cast headed by Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Angie Dickinson and Robert Duvall. This time around it’s Streep and Roberts engineering the lurid mayhem, and Letts has rightly assumed Horton Foote’s mantel at making you cringe even as you’re gasping with nervous laughter.

It hardly goes without saying that August: Osage County is a Weinstein Company production, and that George Clooney is on the producer roster along with Jean Doumanian, the play’s original producer. “It’s a long life,” murmurs Sam Shepard in the opening minutes, quoting from T.S. Eliot and getting a tighter grip on his whiskey tumbler as Violet stumbles down the stairs of her first entrance. Plays and movies this delicious make a long life worth watching and living.

The Past
(Asghar Farhadi. 2013. Iran. 130 min.)

Tracy Letts’ restless Oklahoma sensibilities may seem a world away from Iranian writer/director Farhadi, but their tales of conflicted families are strangely similar. Farhadi’s growing collection of acutely defined dramas—each examining the tectonic shifts of the family unit—transcend their settings at the Caspian sea, in Tehran, and in Paris.

About Elly (2009) examined several extended, multi-generational families enjoying a deserted ramshackle weekend house directly on a Caspian beachfront. But the skies, waves, and surf suddenly change, and every parent’s worst nightmare—a missing child—seems to occur. Friendships among the families fray as each member’s frailties and uncertainties, jealousies and marital woes, lies of convenience and deception, moral failures and furies, shift with the deadly allure of an undertow.

In A Separation (2011), Iran’s primitive and arbitrary justice system is integrated into a soupçon of lies and truths. The father of a 12-year-old wants to move her to America and a better life; the mother insists they stay to help care for an aged grandparent with Alzheimer’s. A sullen (and pregnant) caregiver is hired, but she’s inept and possibly a thief; when the husband fires her, she falls down a flight of stairs and loses the baby. She claims the father pushed her and he finds himself on trial for murder. “It’s a detective story without any detectives,” Farhadi has said, a film that “provides as many answers as there are audiences.” Once again the viewer must sort out who (if anyone) is playing with a full deck. When the court lets the girl choose which parent she’d rather live with, the director’s choice is yet another surprise.

Farhadi moves his new film, The Past, to Paris, and we’re immersed in a drab middle class household by the side of a railroad tracks—though it’s half refurbished, kind of like Marie (Bérénice Bejo) who has two young daughters and a new boyfriend. Her husband, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) has returned to Paris from Tehran to finalize their divorce—it happens neither of her daughters are his—so she can marry her new beau, Samir (Tahar Rahim). Samir works in a dry cleaner with another woman, Naïma (Sabrina Ouazani) and has a button-cute son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis). Marie is employed at a pharmacy. The plot device that works like the grandfather in A Separation is Ahmad’s former wife, Céline (Aleksandra Klebanska), who’s tried to commit suicide by drinking detergent, and lies in a coma at a Paris hospital. What made Céline want to kill herself? Exactly where and when did she do this? Details, details—that’s the key device, the Hitchcockian “MacGuffin” that powers The Past, and there are more secrets to unravel in the outskirts of Paris than in Osage County, Oklahoma.

Farhadi has become exceedingly adept at shuffling subplots, auxiliary characters, and untoward events with the ease of Penn and Teller shuffling a deck of cards as they prepare to demonstrate a new illusion. We have to pay close attention and we do, acknowledging and trusting the director’s storytelling instincts.

The closest 20th century auteur with that grip on our imaginations, film after film, was Francois Truffaut, in part because he worked so instinctively with children. Farhadi’s daughter Sarina played the brave, conflicted teen in A Separation with aching fidelity, and here he’s found another spot-on actress, Pauline Burlet, 17, as Lucie, who pushes against both her mom and dad with a teen’s confusion and doubt mixed with a longing belief. Farhadi transforms all three kids (the second daughter is Léa, played by Jeanne Jestin) in The Past into important, fully realized characters who help drive the plot and form our moral judgments. This director has a trunk load of tricks up his sleeve, but unlike Penn and Teller, he never reveals how they’re done—here he doesn’t even finish his grand finale, forcing us to imagine how it might play out with a tiny last-second hint you have to watch closely even to catch.

The message conveyed by Farhadi thoughout The Past is that children suffer the most from the misplaced confidences and selfish mistakes of their parents. Lucie, Léa and Fouad can’t fathom how Marie can keep shifting her affections in and out of a string of live-in lovers; she’s pregnant by Samir, which may be the one tie holding them together even as Ahmad tries to sort through the wreckage of their marriage, and the director deepens the stakes by the mysterious revelations surrounding Céline’s attempted suicide.

There are numerous wrenching turns you’ll need to discover on your own, as Bejo, depressed and feeling guilty about the mess she’s made of everyone’s lives, chain smokes and agonizes over her household collapsing like a house of cards around her. She’s at that point of sadness and desperation where she’s doubting every choice and decision she makes, watching all possibilities of happiness slipping through her fingers. It’s a killer performance you’d never expect from the angelic flapper in The Artist and the two male leads complement each other closely (even prompting Lucie to accuse her mother of finding a lover that’s looks like her father).

The Past is free of the political criticisms that may have held back Farhadi’s A Separation within Iran’s borders; it’s his country’s official Academy Award entry for Best Foreign Language Film, and this could be the one.